Bruce Chen

How Alternative Facts Damage the PR Profession

By: Bruce Chen | March 7, 2017 | 

How "Alternative Facts" Damage the PR ProfessionThe White House press secretary made claims confirming every negative stereotype of the public relations industry.

Sean Spicer accused the media of deliberately underestimating the size of the crowd for the inauguration.

He claimed the crowd was the “largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”

Kellyanne Conway then dealt a damaging blow to all PR professionals across the world with two words: Alternative facts.

In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Conway defended Spicer’s claims, saying, You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving—Sean Spicer, our press secretary—gave alternative facts.

Alternative Facts Confirm the Public’s Negative View of PR

People used to ask me what PR professionals do, but I no longer get the chance to explain.

The phrase alternative facts forever associates the profession with dishonesty and disrespecting the media.

I worked tirelessly to move from B.C. to Ontario to attend the best PR program in Canada.

I didn’t leave my family, friends, and a stable career to be labeled as a liar, a “spin doctor,” and somebody who ignores the obvious.

The White House staff have been making a career from spreading misinformation since their presidential campaign began (and in fact, they’ve compiled quite the laundry list since he’s become president).

I’m trying to make a career by telling the truth.

It only took one press briefing from the Trump administration to make this goal more difficult.

The alternative facts concept immediately gained notoriety following Conway’s statements.

In the aforementioned NBC interview, Todd refuted Conway’s assertions.

Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.

Journalists, comedians, and the public have mocked the term on social media.

The discussion prompted Merriam-Webster Dictionary to say: “Facts” must have “objective reality.”

This officially proved Todd’s assertion about Spicer’s statements.

Alternative Facts Break Our Professional Codes of Ethics

The Canadian Public Relations Society, Public Relations Society of America, and the International Association of Business Communicators have a code of ethics all PR practitioners must uphold.

Spicer’s press briefing violated the top three rules of the codes.

The codes state we must practice PR to the highest professional standard, members must deal with the media fairly and not knowingly disseminate false information.

Spicer was dishonest and disrespectful to the media.

His violations of the code of ethics prove he is not a representative of the PR profession.

In fact, the Public Relations Society of America released a statement saying, “alternative facts…reflect poorly on all communications professionals.”

It’s Up to Us to Fight Back Against Alternative Facts

The alternative facts episode has presented a crisis communications situation similar to our clients’ issues.

Professionals working in agencies and in-house alike face these situations every day.

This time, it’s not an oil spill, product recall, or inappropriate comments by a CEO.

This time, the client is our profession, and we all work for the agency of record.

We must respond by saying, bring it on, because there are no other professions on earth better equipped to handle a crisis.

We are all different, but we are all storytellers, strategists, and influencers who practice PR to the highest professional standard.

Fellow PR practitioners, I urge you to fight for the credibility of your profession by expressing your opinions on Spicer’s actions.

If you agree with me, share this article on social media.

In addition to sharing the word on social, here are a few additional communications strategies we might use in this crisis:

  • Ask your company’s digital team if there’s room for an urgent blog post on this issue. I’ll gladly re-tweet it.
  • Organize meet-ups, either on social media, or in-person to come up with a small social media campaign. Owning the conversation is key to weathering any crisis.
  • Do what you do! Conduct yourselves as the best PR professional you already are, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Let’s start the dialogue.

Let’s control the narrative by responding swiftly, and let’s influence opinion like only we can.

About Bruce Chen

"I'm a Humber Public Relations Postgraduate Certificate student with experience in journalism and digital content creation. In university, I was an Engineering major because of my numerical proficiency. Now, I aspire to fuse those qualities with my innate love of brands and storytelling. My current favorite projects in class include brainstorming and teamwork in Strategic Communications. I've taken a keen interest in the tactical branding of consumer brands such as food products. My other classes require me to be a detailed, engaging and accurate CP-style writer. I'm often a go-to person in team projects because of my entrepreneurially-driven and inventive ideas.

  • Travis Peterson

    Well said, Bruce!

    • Bruce Ch

      Thanks Travis!

  • First, I hope you don’t mind that I removed the name of our president. I cannot bring myself to give him any publicity. That said, I totally agree with your assessment. What is happening in Washington is reflecting VERY poorly on the PR industry.

    I was venting about it to a friend. I mean, I’ve spent the last 10 years building a brand that fights the perception our industry has, and trying to provide a platform for all communicators to prove we are ethical. And then this happened.

    He said, “Maybe it’s a huge opportunity for you.” And maybe it is…

    • Bruce Ch

      Thank you for your analysis and sentiments, Gini! One thing we figured is that Spicer is probably being forced to compromise his ethics from the higher ups. PR is a management function, not a messaging function and I think Donald Trump has misconstrued what Spicer’s role is.

      • I agree! I think the same about Conway. Though, we were just discussing last night how I can’t even get through a meeting if someone uses potty language. So there is no way I could go on national television and say the microwaves have cameras in them.

  • Allison Baayoun

    What a great post. As a PR student about to graduate and enter the professional world, this article is very relatable. Adhering to a code of ethics is one of the first things you are taught as a PR student. With all of the controversial events happening in the world of politics, I find it so interesting to see how PR professionals maintain this “professional standard,” while fighting against “alternative facts.” Do you think PR professionals can change how our country views the media, if we were to unite and fight to control the narrative?

    • Bruce Ch

      Glad you liked it, I am in a postgraduate program for PR and we are all feeling the same way.

  • Emma Kaser

    As a PR major about to graduate, and everyone asking me why I would ever want to go in to a “dying” and “hated” profession, I resonate with this post deeply. We spend so much time on learning about ethics and fairness, that it is insulting when people who nothing about PR blindly listen to Spicer and his “alternative facts.”

    • Bruce Ch

      I don’t think PR is dying, things like this prove PR needs to exist.

  • Katie Thomson

    This post is a great example of how the political climate greatly changes the PR profession, or at least, how people perceive the profession. With the controversy that currently inhabits our nation, we are often labeled as “dishonest and disrespectful,” while trying to fight “alternative facts” by presenting the truth. We often face lose-lose situations, but do you think there’s a way for the truth to win, or at least be accepted, in this political climate?

    • Bruce Ch

      I think there’s always a way. It’s harder in the era of fake news, but I believe the best of the best rises to the top. It’s just a matter of using verifiable sources.